I had lunch at Terruño, the restaurant at local San Miguel winery, Tres Raíces, a few weeks ago. On my way out, I bought a bottle of one of their reds, their Tempranillo. It was a significant…no, make that very significant…purchase. It was the most expensive bottle of Tempranillo I’d ever bought in my life. And I’ve bought a lot of Tempranillos and I’ve lived a lot of life.

So why, you might be asking. Well it’s primarily because I’ve got this “buy local” thing in my blood though, at the price I paid, probably not in my brain. I’ve got this must know motivation to sample the wines of what is now called the Rutas del Vino de Guanajuato. You could call it the underdog attitude, checking out the young upstarts as they take on the seasoned pros.

Now you have to be careful when you’re buying local. Because what you think is local may actually be from far, far away. I remember about ten years ago raving about a local Nebbiolo only to be embarrassed to discover it was made from juice that had been trucked in from Baja, California.

Most of the wineries within an hour of San Miguel de Allende didn’t exist ten years ago. And it can take quite a few years to make a winery profitable. It’s only in the second year that you get fruit on the vine. Only in the third year that you might get enough fruit to justify harvesting. Only in about the fifth year that you might have enough of a harvest to turn your numbers from red to black ink.

So, in their first few years, a lot of wineries buy their fruit or juice or even finished bottles with their label on it. Now I understand why. You’ve got to start to build the bankroll and build the brand as soon as possible. There’s one thing I don’t like though. There’s rarely anything on those bottles that tell you the wine didn’t come from their own vineyards.

The only solution I know of is to ask the winemaker so, before I went for lunch, I emailed Agostina Astegiano at Tres Raíces.

Agostina told me, “Our Tempranillo and our Merlot have grapes from here and from another vineyard. We are very proud of these!”

I chose the the Tempranillo because I know Tempranillos and there are lots of imported Tempranillos available that I could compare Tres Raíces with.

I decided I’d open the Tres Raíces with three other similarly-priced Tempranillos, two from the world leader in Tempranillo production, Spain, and one from the most established and celebrated of Mexican wine regions, the Valle de Guadalupe. I had a bit of a problem though. It’s not easy to find young Tempranillos as expensive as Tres Raíces.

For the Spanish, I decided to shop at Mercado de Vinos. They have 585 Tempranillos listed, 436 from Spain, but there aren’t any 100% Tempranillos with a year or less in the barrel and the bottle that even approach the premium price level of Tres Raíces. So I decided to take a very different approach. 

I ended up simply shopping at our local La Comer supermarket and chose two popular young Spanish Tempranillos from Rioja, one with 100% of the grape, the other a blend with over 90% Tempranillo.

For the Mexican from Valle de Guadalupe, I decided to use the winner of a Spain versus Mexico tasting that was held at San Miguel de Allende restaurant Casa Nostra, a wine called Traspatio. It was, unfortunately, out of stock everywhere but the number two wine in the competition, a Tempranillo that finished just one point behind in second place, a wine called Galileo, was available. 

I opened all four of the bottles, poured a glass of each, did the compulsory swirl and dip of my nose into each glass then took a sip of each separated by swills of water.

Campo Viejo Tempranillo  $229

First to be uncorked was a wine I’ve opened on many, many occasions. Campo Viejo is one of Rioja’s most successful winemakers and wine marketers. Their 100% Tempranillo has 13% alcohol and spends six months in oak and a further six months in the bottle. Campo Viejo had the driest and sharpest taste of the four and the tannins from the barrels were evident in both the garnet color and vanilla, tobacco and rye bread nuances in the flavor. Young Spanish Tempranillos offer some of the best values anywhere these days and Campo Viejo is no exception. I scored it 85.

Beronia Rioja Crianza  $243

To be called a Crianza, a Spanish wine must spend twelve months in the barrel and three in the bottle. It also allows for other grapes to be used and Beronia is 91% Tempranillo, 8% Garnacha and 1% Mazuela. The Beronia was spicier on the nose with cherry and blueberry joining hints of chocolate and vanilla on the tongue. Again I thought it was an excellent value and, mainly because of a little more fruit coming through in the taste, I rated it above the Campo Viejo, giving it an 87.

El Cielo Galileo Tempranillo  $599

Galileo comes from the most esteemed wine region in Mexico, the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California. Following the Spanish tradition, the wine spends 12 months in oak, but the tannins didn’t really come through as well as they did with the first two wines, with just hints of wet earth and leather. Where Galileo does shine is in its fruitiness with blackcurrants, blueberries and raspberries all being detectable. I put Galileo in between the Spaniards with a score of 86 which was a little less than it received from the panel at the Tempranillo tasting two years ago.

Tres Raíces Tempranillo  $651

As I mentioned earlier, you have to be careful when you’re buying local that you’re actually getting local. Sommelier Agostina Astegiano had told me earlier that her Tempranillo had “grapes from here and from another vineyard”. I decided I better make sure that “another vineyard” was also local so sent her another email. Agostina replied, “The grapes are from a neighboring vineyard here. Very close. You could say that they are practically all from here.”

Though it was over a week ago, I still vividly remember that first taste of Tres Raíces Tempranillo. It was the fruitiest Tempranillo I’d ever tasted; I might not have even guessed it was a Tempranillo with so much berry fruit coming out. Was that good or bad? I wasn’t sure. I liked it but I wasn’t sure others would.

The alcohol level at 12.8% was lower than the other three Tempranillos. The acidity, at 5.6 g/L also made it sweeter than the other three. Tres Raíces Tempranillo spends 12 months in French oak barrels but there was hardly a taste of tannins. Just this full, lush, jammy taste of plums, strawberries and cherries.

I thought of how the grapes might have acquired such a rich taste. More hours of sunshine? Greater differences between high and low temperatures? Earlier ripening? Something in the fermentation or clarification?

I then thought of how “the experts” might score Tres Raíces. I know that, generally, they don’t particularly like big, fruity wines like the very successful Apothic line from California which this reminded me of. But I also know that the Apothic line is Costco’s best-selling wine. And I buy a lot of Apothic. 

I decided I would give it an 88, the best score of the four. Liking and buying are two very different things, however. The Tres Raíces is 250% the price of the Beronia and only 1% better in its score. The Beronia and Campo Viejo might be in my supermarket buggy next week. I doubt I’ll ever see the Tres Raíces Tempranillo in my buggy or even on a supermarket shelf, at its current price level.

So what did I learn from my indulgence of purchasing the most expensive young Tempranillo in my life? A lot actually. I discovered that Mexico can make wine as good as Spain which makes me very optimistic about Guanajuato’s future as a wine region. On the other hand, Mexico does not seem to be able to market wine at anywhere close to the price of Spain.

So, do I ever expect to see a Tempranillo from Guanajuato on the shelf of a Spanish supermarket? Or anywhere else in the world? Not in my lifetime. Which is a shame.

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